April 3, 2013

Ogando helps Rangers set strikeout mark in win over Astros

Texas pitchers fan 43 batters in the series, a record for a team’s first three games.

The retractable roof was closed for all three games during the Texas Rangers’ season-opening series, yet there was a steady breeze blowing through Minute Maid Park.

The air was moved frequently by Houston Astros hitters, whose bats swung through pitches at an alarming rate.

The trend continued Wednesday in a 4-0 victory in which the Rangers set a major league record for the most strikeouts by a pitching staff in its first three games of the season.

Alexi Ogando struck out a career-high 10 in 6 1/3 innings, and Joe Nathan struck out the side in the ninth to give the Rangers 43 strikeouts in the series and break the mark held by the 1966 Cleveland Indians.

The mix of quality Rangers pitching and an overmatched Astros lineup led not only to the record, but also to back-to-back shutouts and a series win for the Rangers after an Opening Day loss.

“They’re young, they’re aggressive, and I don’t know how much of what they saw last night of Yu Darvish they’d ever seen,” manager Ron Washington said. “Today, Ogando is known for striking out guys. He has a good fastball and a tremendous slider, and now he’s got a changeup and a curveball to go with all of that.”

Lance Berkman had an RBI double in a three-run eighth inning to help break open a pitchers’ duel between Ogando and Philip Humber. The Rangers held a 1-0 lead when Ogando was removed, and Robbie Ross, Tanner Scheppers, Michael Kirkman and Nathan finished off the five-hitter.

The strikeout became an integral part of the game in the first inning after leadoff man Jose Altuve doubled off Ogando and went to third with one out. Ogando, though, struck out Chris Carter and Carlos Pena to end the threat, and the Astros had only two runners advance to second base the rest of the game.

Ogando knew he needed to strike out Carter to escape the early jam, and he got what he wanted.

“I just focused on throwing quality pitches, and I wanted to strike them out,” he said. “I focused on my pitches and got good results.”

He also focused in after a talking-to from Washington in the third inning after he had walked Brett Wallace and fallen behind Pena with two outs. Ogando would respond with a grounder on the next pitch that started a string of nine consecutive outs.

The manager didn’t take the credit, but just reminded Ogando to throw strikes and let his defense work behind him.

“He just told me to have no fear, to throw them pitches they are able to handle, and to throw in the strike zone,” said Ogando, who threw 94 pitches. “I was able to be aggressive after that.”

Elvis Andrus got the eighth-inning rally started with a single to left, and Berkman followed with an opposite-field gapper to left-center. Nelson Cruz singled two batters later to drive in pinch runner Julio Borbon, and Adrian Beltre scored when A.J. Pierzynski followed with a sacrifice fly.

Berkman, the all-time hits leader at Minute Maid, finished his first series with the Rangers 6 for 10 with three RBIs and three walks.

“When you’re in a familiar environment where you’re comfortable, you’re going to perform better,” he said. “When I’m hitting well I use the whole field. I felt like I was seeing the ball pretty well, and my swing path was where I wanted it. I hope it will hang around for a while.”

The Rangers take a step up in class beginning Friday during a six-game homestand against the Los Angeles Angels and Tampa Bay. After one series, though, even if it was against an Astros team expected to lose 100 games, the Rangers like what they’re seeing from their pitching staff.

“It looks good to me,” Berkman said. “We knew coming in that we had some guys who have terrific stuff. I think you saw that. It was a good start for everybody. I think we showed we’re going to be a tough team to beat.”

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